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Designing your document

Centre for Plain Legal Language, 1993

Language and design work together to make your document easy to read, and easy to use. Good design acts as a map for your reader. It signposts important material and makes information easier to find.

Good design will:

  • encourage people to read your document
  • improve understanding
  • save time.

Good design is not complicated. You should think about design for all your documents - including letters. Make your document more reader friendly by following these guidelines:

Before you start

  • Think about the design of your document while you are writing it - not afterwards. This will help organise and impose a structure on the document. Use headings to arrange information into logical and easily digestible parts.

  • use a typeface that fits your purpose and is easy to read
  • use one or two typefaces only and avoid ornate styles
  • use a serif typeface for the main text of your document. Serif typefaces have small extensions (serif) at the top and bottom of each letter. Examples are: times roman, plantin, palatino, bodoni, bembo, garamond, and bookman.
  • use a sans serif typeface for emphasis and in headings. Sans serif typesfaces have no serif. Examples are: helvetica, optima, gill sans, futura, avant garde and univers.

  • make the main text between 10 and 12 points, depending on the style of typeface. Type that is very small is difficult to read, particuarly for people with poor eyesight, older people, or younger people.

Length of lines
  • make sure that the length of each line is between 50 and 70 characters wide - that's up to 8.5cm across. Short lines break continuity and very long lines cause the eye to wander.

Spacing between lines (leading)
  • don't push words up close together or spread them too far apart as they become too hard to read.

Upper and lower case (capitals and small letters)
  • use lower case. When we read, we recognise words by their overall shape, rather than by individual letters. Lower case text is easier to read because words form distinct shapes that are easy to recognise. Avoid using only upper case text as it makes identifying words difficult.

Justification (alignment)
  • set text and headings against the left margin (flush left). This maintains equal space between words and letters, is easier to read, and means important headings run sequentially down the left hand side of the page. Text set against both the left and right margins (justified), can produce uneven spaces between words, which break continuity and makes text hard to follow. Do not set text against the right margin (flush right).

  • use black type on a light background as it is easier to read
  • use colour to emphasise parts of your document or add appeal, but make sure it does not overwhelm the text.

White space (space without printing)
  • use white space to make your document look less crowed
  • use white space to show the beginging or end of a section, and to emphasise important information.

Highlighting information
  • use bold and italic to highlight - but use them sparingly
  • avoid underlining and avoid using capitals.

Other keys to find information
  • use headings to identify each section of your document - and show the relative importance of headings by size and style
  • use a table of contents, as an index for longer documents
  • use running headers/footers that show names of sections and page numbers
  • use a running system that is clear and easy to follow.

Be consistent!
  • decide on the style of your document - and stick to those decisions. Documents that are inconsistent in their use of design appear confusing and uninviting.

Checklist for writing in plain language

Centre for Plain Legal Language, 1993

Every document has its own purpose. This means that there is no formula for writing in plain language. But following those guidelines will remind you of things to look out for as you write.

Think before you write

  • who is the audience?
  • why are you writing this document?
  • what do you want to say?
  • what do you want your reader to do?

Think about the structure first
  • organise your ideas
  • put the most important ideas first
  • put qualifications and procedural details second
  • group together related material
  • use a decimal numbering system that shows hierarchy of the information.

Think about the content of each sentence and paragraph
  • address your readers directly
  • limit each paragraph to one idea
  • don't overload sentences
  • link your ideas
  • keep sentences and paragraphs short

Think about the language you use
  • prefer the active voice
  • avoid ambiguity
  • emphasise the positive
  • avoid double negatives
  • don't use "shall" or "can". If your readers must do it (mandatory), write "must". If they may do it (permissible), write "may".

Think about your choice of words
  • use everyday words unless this is really impossible
  • cut out unnecessary words
  • avoid jargon, technical words or "legal" expressions
  • if you have used a technical word, explain it
  • don't change verbs into nouns
  • avoid long strings of nouns
  • use acronyms sparingly - and only if your readers know what they mean.

Design your document to help your reader
  • make important information easy to find
  • use headings and sub-headings
  • highlight important messages
  • create a table of contents. In lengthy documents create an index based on the concepts you use
  • use typefaces that are easy to read and large enough to read
  • check that the colours of ink and paper contrast well
  • use graphics and illustrations where approproate
  • don't be afraid of "white space" - it adds air to the text.

Make sure you are writing plain language
  • ask someone to read your draft
  • don't "own" your draft. Accept criticism!
  • test the document with your readers.

Plain Language Materials Checklist

from Gateways to the Law: an exploratory study of how non-profit agencies assist clients with legal problems, S. Scott and C. Sage, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, 2001

This checklist for plain language legal information has been compiled from interviews with community workers in which they were asked what they find effective in plain language materials about the law.

  • Use plain English – simple, clear, avoid long words, avoid legalese, not intimidating, easily digestible.
  • Limit the number of words on a page.
  • Produce information at several levels of complexity.
  • Strike a balance between too much and not enough information.
  • Produce materials in relevant community languages and include the English title on these.
  • Use a question and answer format.
  • Show the steps people need to follow using a simple flow chart or pictorial diagram.
  • Tell clients where they stand, where they can get further information, and what they should be considering.
  • Give readers an idea that they are not alone.
  • Provide details of other relevant services, including local services if possible.
  • Provide telephone interpreter service details on all resources and indicate whether charges will be paid for by the agency.
  • Provide examples of precedent letters.
  • Provide information about time limitations.
  • Provide information about what to expect when going to court.
  • Ensure that information is up-to-date, accurate and well researched.
  • Indicate the date on the resource.
  • Use eye-catching techniques e.g. colour, illustrations.
  • Use adequate font size.
  • Use coloured pictures. Photostories were identified as being particularly useful for people with poor English skills.
  • Use simple layout and compartmentalise the information.
  • Use small quick points.
  • Use colour coding.
  • Adapt the format to the needs of the client e.g. young people like material which is easy to carry, and fits into their wallet or jeans pocket.
  • Carry out user testing.